CLEVELAND — For the first time in his eight-year NFL career, Joe Haden opened the regular season with a win.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made sure everyone was aware of it.
Tomlin presented Haden with the game ball Sunday following Pittsburgh’s 21-18 victory over the Browns, earning him a round of applause from his new teammates in the visiting locker room.
“It was kind of sweet, knowing I’ve got the game ball from the first time I played with the Steelers,” Haden said, flashing the warm smile that made him a Cleveland fan favorite.
“It’s been a real roller-coaster the last couple of weeks, but at the same time, it went kind of fast and the adjustment has been smooth.”
The two-time Pro Bowl cornerback’s world was turned upside down on Aug. 30 when he was waived by the Browns after spending his first seven seasons with the franchise.
Cleveland football operations director Sashi Brown demanded that the 28-year-old Haden take a pay cut from the $11.1 million he was due, which he refused. The Steelers promptly signed him to a three-year, $27 million contract and made him their starter on the left side.
“We understand the business side of it, but at the end of the day, it’s still love for those guys on the Browns,” Haden said. “Because, I mean, it wasn’t their fault. We built relationships over there through the last seven years, but once the game got going, it was about football.”
Haden ran with a spring in his step — finally healthy after undergoing surgery on both groin muscles in the spring — during his FirstEnergy Stadium homecoming.
The former “Mr. Cleveland” sacked Browns rookie DeShone Kizer, made six tackles and did not allow a touchdown (or a long gain) in man-to-man coverage against wide receivers Corey Coleman and Kenny Britt.
Haden also turned back the clock by soaring high to knock a deep pass out of the hands of tight end Seth DeValve, who is 5 inches taller.
“It was cool, I just have to make sure I keep the ball in front of me in coverage,” the 5-foot-11, 195-pounder said. “They threw over there a couple of times. I made a couple of plays. I’m just happy we came out on top.”
Haden, who owns the high-end sneaker store The Restock CLE on Prospect Avenue, exchanged jerseys with Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey at midfield. He said his relationship with Cleveland coach Hue Jackson remains strong, as well.
The latter friendship was referenced in a pregame show segment on CBS, which claimed that Jackson was “livid” about Haden’s release and strongly disagreed with Brown’s decision-making process.
“I don’t even want to get into that,” Haden said of the report, quickly adding, “Some decisions aren’t held with the coach. Me and the coach, we have a really good relationship, but some stuff is over his head.
“I am what I am now. I’m a Steeler. I’m just trying to get a grip of this locker room, but I already know we’ve got a bunch of good dudes here, just like they do there.”